THE world is hard on ambitious girls, or so says Amy March in the 1860s. And what has changed?

Throughout Greta Gerwig's radical new adaptation of Little Women, female economic and social power are questioned and explored, as are the various effects of marriage on a woman's life.

What has changed, from then until now?

Here is Marmee, taking on the unpaid caring role for the entire town.

Here is Meg, her domestic labours undermined and undervalued by her husband.

Here is Jo, determined to be an independent, single woman, to "paddle my own canoe" but being pressured into marriage, questioned relentlessly about why she doesn't want to have a relationship.

"You remind me of myself," Marmee tells Jo, following Jo's failure to keep a grip on her explosive temper.

"But you're never angry," Jo replies.

"I'm angry nearly every day of my life," Marmee says. And such a lot she had to be angry about, and such a lot we still have to be angry about, particularly when it comes to men and women's equality in relationships.

In one furious scene, Laurie, the March sister's neighbour and close friend, has had his marriage proposal rejected by Jo and is now moping around Paris, drinking his grandfather's money and behaving like a spoiled child.

He attempts to give Amy a dressing down for her desire to marry into money; she is, at that point in the film, awaiting a proposal. Amy will have none of it. There is no way, she tells Laurie, for a woman to earn her own keep. When she marries she will be the property of her husband; any property she owns or money she might earn, will be the property of her husband; any children she might have will be the property of her husband. Marriage removes a woman's legal right to herself.

"Don’t sit there," she flares at Laurie, "And tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition."

There is the most obvious change between then and now. Women now earn their own keep. Their children belong to them, their property belongs to them. These are changes made more recently than it's comfortable to think about, but they are changes the March girls would be astounded by.

Marriage was a system designed to control and subdue women, and to limit their economic power.

But marriage is still an economic proposition. Marriage comes with great financial risk for women. They are more likely, when children enter the equation, to give up full time work and so limit their earning potential and their pension contributions.

According to the Chartered Insurance Institute, the average divorced woman has less than a third of the pension wealth of the average divorced man.

Repeated studies have shown that the benefits of marriage for men far outweigh the benefits for women. Married men are likely to be in better physical and mental health than their single counterparts, have more money and have greater social support networks.

For women, there is very little difference in these measures between single and married women, apart from money, where non-married women are better off. Other studies have shown that married women report lower satisfaction levels than co-habiting or single women and are more likely to initiate divorce than men.

In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Jo quits her writing and is married off, a decision Alcott, who never married, said she regretted. Jo should have remained a "literary spinster". In Gerwig's film, Jo is given a book.

"What I was trying to reverse-engineer," she said. "Was this moment that Jo getting her book would make the audience feel like you usually feel when the heroine is chosen by the hero. I wanted to see if I could create that feeling, but with a girl and her book."

It is a perfect ending to a feminist, questioning film. But, in real life, imagine we could move beyond an either/or choice for women where a relationship is not a stymie to her creative output or stem from an oppressive institution.

Couples are increasingly turning their backs on marriage. Co-habitation is the fastest growing type of relationship in the UK where the number of co-habiting couples has doubled to 3.3 million in 20 years.

The risks for women, though, are even greater in an unmarried partnership. There is a general misconception that co-habiting couples have legal rights similar to those of married couples, leaving women and their children vulnerable.

In England last week the first mixed-sex civil partnerships took place after a law change brought about following a lengthy campaign by a couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who wanted a system that gives them legal protections without the patriarchal baggage of marriage.

This is common in other parts of the world - from de-facto rights in Australia to France's civil solidarity pact and mixed-sex civil partnerships in Netherlands, South Africa, New Zealand and the Isle of Man.

Here, the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill is making its way through parliament to make mixed-sex partnerships legal in Scotland. Around 84,000 mixed-sex couples are expected to form civil partnerships next year.

For feminists, for the non-religious, for those who want a new structure within which to define their relationships, this is an exciting development and it will be interesting to see how a civil pact, rather than a marriage, changes the way women feel and thrive in their relationships.

The ambition of civil partnerships is to create true equality. If the much-adapted Little Women reflects how society feels about women at any given time, perhaps the next iteration will see Jo end up with both her novel and an equal match.